Three Nights Before Christmas is the second Kat Latham romance Miss Bates read this year. When Miss Bates thoroughly enjoys two romances by the same author, said author enters auto-buy territory. Latham’s work is quirky, interesting; it stands out. It feels special and different, fresh. When you consider Three Nights Before Christmas‘ premise, it’s easy to see why. On Thanksgiving, Lacey Gallagher is released from prison, having completed three of a ten-year sentence. She will serve parole in her Montana hometown, live at home with older brother, Sawyer, and work at the family’s Christmas tree farm. Lacey was convicted of transporting drugs thanks to Dave Dugger, a charming, lying, manipulative ex-boyfriend. The man who arrested and helped put her in prison, nemesis Austin Wilder, letter-of-the-law forest ranger and looker, features in Lacey’s best and worst dreams. But Miss Bates tosses frivolity where she oughtn’t – yet, as serious and painful as it is to witness Lacey’s struggles adjusting to the world outside prison walls, the wit and warmth with which the novel is written and the love with which Austin, Lacey, and everyone around them are rendered, puts a smile on a reader’s face, even during some of the novel’s darkest moments.
On the day of Lacey’s release, she thinks: “Ignorance was how she’d ended up here.” Ignorance, gullibility, and a good heart, one ready to help and please, as well as her profession as train engineer, put her in the unique, vulnerable position of being the perfect target for Dugger’s drug-trafficking “business.” Lacey leaves prison a broken, but wiser, older woman. Her goals are to stay out of trouble, follow her parole conditions, and regain some joy in life. Once out, Lacey’s pleasures are simple. We can all learn from them: privacy to shower, good coffee, fresh food, walking in the forest, inhaling fresh, winter air, and sleeping in her own bed with comforter and pillows. Lacey’s rediscovery of so much we take for granted is poignant and humbling. Miss Bates loved it.
However, Lacey has a hard time of it in many ways. Firstly, she returns to a hometown who knows her as an ex-con. She’s shunned and lonely. Her morose, loner brother, teddy-bear lovely though he is, the only one who stood by her during her trial and years in prison, isn’t the greatest of communicators. His tendency to play big-brother adviser hinders more than helps. Moreover, Lacey experiences rage, frustration, anxiety, a post-prison PTSD and never more so than when she encounters Officer Austin Wilder. Lacey has to confront the double-whammy of re-building a tainted life and mourning losses. Lacey’s losses are great: betrayed by a man she thought loved her, betrayed by a system she thought would vindicate her and, most importantly, the loss of her beloved career. Lacey loved and loves everything trains. Though she panics when she sees, or talks with Austin, circumstances bring them together in such as way as to let her taste vindication, allow her to work at her beloved job, and give her a sense of purpose.
Austin’s been trying to renovate an old steam engine train for use at a Winter Wonderland fundraiser aimed at helping his brother Gabriel, Molly, Gabriel’s fiancée, and her disabled son, Josh. Rides on the renovated steam engine train can make this fundraiser a success, except Austin’s no train engineer and won’t be able to finish on time for Christmas. It was a sheer pleasure to read Austin’s humbling before Lacey when he asks her to help him restore the train. It’s a sweet moment for Lacey, one she could’ve milked, but is too fine a person. Don’t get Miss Bates wrong, Lacey’s no push-over: momentarily, she enjoys Austin’s discomfort. Her revelation is mature and touching: she concludes that what she wants is to live equally and fairly in her community, not to lord it over anyone, not even Austin. She’s been in a place where power was used to demoralize and humiliate and wants no part of it, not even against the man whose testimony put her in prison. Her only demand in exchange for helping with the steam engine is for Austin to create Christmas in the abandoned train station where they’ll work: he agrees to set up a tree, lights, and Christmas music for Lacey to enjoy while she works. This is the first indication Austin will see Lacey in a different light and first suggestion he’s been wrong about her. For Austin, as a man dedicated to, and good at his work, this is a humbling, but necessary experience.
Lacey is definitely the most compelling character in Latham’s romance; Austin, though a stickler stick-in-the-mud, is an attractive hero because Latham fashioned him from maturity, muscles, rueful humour, and the honor to admit when he’s wrong. One of most interesting ideas in the romance is why he falls in love with Lacey. He finds her hot, certainly, but also admires her stoicism and work ethic, her willingness to help a boy she barely knows. His characterization’s cleverness and uniqueness lies in the reasons he’s attracted to Lacey. Miss Bates loved this phrasing of Austin’s growing feelings for Lacey: ” … a strange mix of admiration and amusement mingled in his chest.” Eventually, as Austin realizes how much he likes Lacey, he considers his changing feelings: ” … he’d stopped thinking about her crime. She’d become Lacey Gallagher, train geek and, weirdly, almost-friend. And dark fantasy.” What Miss Bates loved about Austin is he wasn’t one of those rom-heroes who waffles, doubts, and insists on sex without feelings (for sundry alpha reasons, insert cold mother, difficult childhood, etc.). Austin, hallelujah, is NOT a closed-off rom-hero. He knows his heart and when it conflicts with his honor, he errs on the heart’s side. He loves easily and for that, Miss Bates loved him and is grateful to Latham for writing delicious alpha-sexy with a lovely does of maturity and self-knowledge.
Miss Bates cannot leave you without evidence of how lovely and quirky a prose writer Latham is. Miss Bates loved how “Lucinda,” Lacey’s name for the train she and Austin restore, came to symbolize Lacey, how “Lucinda” became a bridge to helping Lacey tell Austin who she is, without talking about the nightmare of her prison experience, and how shared work and purpose brought love. Here is Lacey’s reaction to her first view of “Lucinda”:
She jerked her arm toward the poor, naked locomotive. “This is an actual dismemberment, Officer. She might not be alive to feel it, but she’s a grand lady who deserved better treatment than this.” Picking up a piece of the locomotive’s flue from the floor, he murmured, “I have been trying to fix her.” “Here’s a life lesson for you. Sometimes when you try to fix someone, you just make them worse. And it looks like that’s happening here. Do you have a plan for putting her back together? Equipment? A team?” “No. Just you.”
Lacey is “Lucinda”: the justice system, of which Austin is a part, failed her. When it tried to “fix her,” it near-broke her instead. The description of “Lucinda’s” decrepit condition parallels Lacey’s prison experiences. Austin asks Lacey to give of herself and he’s willing to admit he needs her. There’s nothing sexier than honesty and Latham’s created two wonderfully honest characters. Lacey speaks truth to power and power sheepishly hangs his head and owns it. But Lacey is too smart to blame everything that happened to her on forces outside herself. Working on Lucinda helps her see herself better as well:
She was a rusty old train, shunted aside and left to rot. She used to sparkle and shine. She used to go places, have a purpose. Now she was off her track and trying to find her way back. No one else can put you back together, Lace. If you don’t like seeing a prisoner when you look in the mirror, scrub the rust off yourself and get a new paint job.
Isn’t it wonderful, the paralleling of Lacey/Lucinda? Lacey recognizes what she has to do to remake herself. She identifies with “Lucinda’s” rusty brokenness, but also with her possibility, her potential to be … well, magnificent. Austin stands witness to this and, by witnessing, he realizes how necessary Lacey is to him, how much he loves her.
Latham’s Three Nights Before Christmas isn’t perfect. Frankly, the second half included contrived incidents that manipulated the narrative. They deliberately set the narrative’s tracks in a way that didn’t allow for things to proceed organically, rising out of who Lacey and Austin were, though the HEA redeems. All is forgiven, however, because there is much to like. As Miss Bates discussed elsewhere, romance offers love, companionship, and intimacy to its protagonists. In some romances, however, it also offers the emotional satisfaction of vindication: thus is Latham’s. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Three Nights Before Christmas, here is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Kat Latham’s Three Nights Before Christmas is published by Tule Publishing. It was released on October 26th and may be purchased for your enjoyment from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Tule Publishing for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.